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Inside and out
Olly’s Prison comes to Zero Arrow Theatre

The ads for the upcoming American Repertory Theatre production of Olly’s Prison by the controversial British playwright Edward Bond carry the disclaimer "contains scenes of violence, and may not be suitable for young children." Robert Woodruff, the ART’s artistic director and the director of this American-premiere production, which opens next Friday, doesn’t buy the objections. "Aren’t the ancient Greek plays violent? Next to our daily television news broadcasts, the films, and the headlines, it’s not so violent."

Originally written as a television drama and later tweaked by the playwright for the stage, Olly’s Prison opens with the scene of a man murdering his 16-year-old daughter, and the violence level ratchets up from there. "Abu Graib was more violent; the Iraqi war is more violent," Woodruff says. "I’m terribly attracted to Edward as a writer, who creates with great necessity, with a Utopian vision of the world, about social possibility, and he writes with the poetry of workers. He joins the personal and the political."

The trajectory of post–World War II English theater that brought the demands of the working class onto center stage can be traced from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger through Harold Pinter’s plays of unspoken menace to Bond’s more savagely confrontational dramas. Bond broke into the public consciousness in 1965 when his second play, Saved, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office because of the scene in which a baby in a carriage was stoned to death. Bond, now 70, has since gone on to influence the playwrights who have come after him — and he’s still writing. Woodruff directed the New York production of Saved five years ago.

Much of Olly’s Prison takes place in the prison to which Mike is sent; however, the stage directions state that "the greater prison lies outside." The play is set "in London and the country, 11 years ago, and in the present," but we’re never given any information other than the character’ first names, and no overt motives for their unspeakable deeds.

A soft-spoken man who generally dresses in black and calls little attention to himself in a crowd, Woodruff believes that Bond is "maybe the greatest writer in English in the second half of the 20th century. At least, he’s on that list. If you give him the credibility, you have to ask what is he about in this play?

"I think all his plays are about a search for justice. Sometimes it gets perverted and becomes anger or revenge. His vision demands a change in the social contracts. The question is: what is the source of that violence? The actors have to present the answer."

Woodruff has given his actors — especially Bill Camp as Mike, Tom Derrah as Barry, Mickey Solis as Oliver (Olly), and David Wilson Barnes as Frank — no small charge in portraying not only the social relationships but also the economic circumstances of the culture. "The society is in the room; the performances are not happening in a vacuum. Social forces are at work at every moment in the play. The violence is caused by internalized social conditions. Bond has written for 40 years about the growth of capitalism as a destructive force."

As for reconciling the difficult scenes in Olly’s Prison with his contention that Bond writes with a "Utopian vision," Woodruff says, "The last note, ultimately, is lyrical: the small gesture of somebody fixing a chair. You know there’s something to hold on to. I hope if the viewers go out for coffee afterwards, they’ll have questions about the play."

The American Repertory Theatre presents Olly’s Prison April 1 through 24 at Zero Arrow Theatre, corner of Arrow Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square. Tickets are $35 to $45; call (617) 547-8300, or visit www.amrep.org.

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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